The Mathematician’s Shiva

Stuart Rojstaczer. Penguin, $16 trade paper (364p) ISBN 978-0-14-312631-7
High math, Eastern European history, and American culture converge in this hugely entertaining debut from geophysicist Rojstaczer. After Rachela Karnokovitch, a Polish émigré and University of Wisconsin professor regarded as her generation’s leading mathematician, dies from cancer in 2001, her middle-aged son, Alexander, a meteorologist also known as Sasha, is tasked with organizing the shiva for her. Though his family is challenging enough, Sasha’s real difficulties begin when dozens of his mother’s colleagues descend on Madison to pay their respects. Brilliant, awkward, lovable, and selfish, these superstar mathematicians prove to be less interested in mourning Rachela than in uncovering her secrets—particularly her rumored solution to one of math’s most famous enigmas, the Navier-Stokes problem. The ostensible mourners rip up floorboards, hold séances, and even read meaning into a 40-year-old parrot’s squawks, all the while discussing the charms and pitfalls of Eastern European identity and the perpetual shock of life in America. Counterbalancing their antics are flashbacks to Rachela’s childhood flight from Poland during WWII. These passages, presented as excerpts from her memoir, add depth to an already multilayered story of family, genius, and loss. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow Carlson & Lerner. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 06/23/2014
Release date: 09/02/2014
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